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Rocks and a Hard Place
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Subjects: Novels; Books-titles -- Mineral Palace, The
Author: Hewett, Heather
Date: Sep 24, 2000
Start Page: X.06
Section: BOOK WORLD

[Heidi Julavits]'s first novel charts the slow awakening of Bena Jonssen, a new mother and wife of a doctor, Ted Jonssen. Set during the Depression, The Mineral Palace begins half-shrouded in mystery. We meet the young couple during their move from St. Paul, Minn., to Pueblo, Colo. As Bena cradles their fragile infant son, her husband drives across an American landscape filled with ghost towns and outlaws. Ted dismisses his wife's apprehensions that the boy is not normal. Given to bouts of anxiety, Bena somewhat desperately places her faith in idiosyncratic superstitions. She obsessively records and interprets numbers--the miles they have traveled, the time of day, their son's height and weight--for clues to the future.

The Mineral Palace's flaws are especially disappointing because so much of Julavits's tale is so engrossing. The inevitable unwinding of the Jonssens' domestic drama is a compelling narrative thread, but the story doesn't quite come together by the last page. Although Bena is privy to a number of confessions, they don't resolve everything. The novel's clotted psychic landscape at times trips up the reader. Bena's own journey toward self-awareness ends in a strange and violent scene, and her conduct, although foreshadowed by earlier events, remains baffling. Julavits's refusal to give in to easy answers is in some ways admirable, but it comes at the frustrating cost of thwarting plot resolutions.

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